Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Dance Theatre of Harlem is Alive!

Michaela DePrince and Samuel Wilson. Photo: Matthew Murphy
It would be easy to attribute much of the audience's rousing support of the Dance Theatre of Harlem to sheer good will—a response to the company's rebirth after nine years of being dormant while the school remained open. But the bright news is that Artistic Director Virginia Johnson has found some truly outstanding young dancers to support the legacy and vision.

A wide-ranging program at the Rose Theater demonstrated the dancers' versatility. Balanchine's Agon opened—the ambition and near-hubris of leading with this challenging classic itself a huge statement. The dancers performed with intent and confidence, if not yet completely feeling it in their bones. The relaxed swagger that comes by commanding Balanchine may yet come. Chyrstyn Fentroy (second from the right in the photo below) possesses the long-limbed physique that Balanchine favored, and made the most of it in her pas de trois. Also of note were the compact, dynamic Ashley Murphy, and Gabrielle Salvatto, who dances with savoir faire.

Michaela DePrince was a revelation as Odile in the Black Swan Pas de Deux, paired with Samuel Wilson. I somehow missed DePrince, just 18, in the documentary First Position (it's in my Netflix queue), which presumably elaborates on her biography—she is from Sierra Leone, made an orphan by the war, and was adopted at four by a family in New Jersey. Now, she's every inch a ballet princess, with astonishing flexibility, ballon, balance, and composure. Age can only help enrich her acting skills. And Wilson is no slouch, packing a punch with refinement and bravura. 
Return. Photo: Matthew Murphy
Return, to R&B hits, provided further discoveries. Robert Garland, resident choreographer, created it for DTH's 30th anniversary in 1999. He manages to reveal the prowess and admirable chops necessary to perform ballet at a high level while showing it can be as fun as club dancing. Da'Von Doane sold it though, shifting seamlessly between the two forms and looking for all the world like he'd won the lottery. Francis Lawrence (at left in the photo above) also looked like he was having a ball, soaring through leaps.

Less successful is the New York premiere of Far But Close, which is weighed down by spoken word text by Daniel Beaty; its earnestness hangs like a fog bank over John Alleyne's movement, a blend of lyrical, bold ballet with a dash of Forsythe, but undistinguished in dynamics between sections. Daniel Bernard Roumain wrote the score, which he played live with a small ensemble. Murphy, Doane, Stephanie Rae Williams, and Jehbreal Jackson danced with some heat, but the sum total missed the mark. Still, commissions are important and DTH's future... well, it exists! Kudos to everyone who made it happen.

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